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LONGFORM REPRINTS 



This article originally appeared in Issue 20 of n+1 and is reprinted 
on Longform by permission of the author. Hear David Samuels 
discuss this story on the n+1 Podcast. 



Beneath the high darkened dome of the Staples Center in Los 
Angeles stands Ken Ehrlich, who has directed the Grammys for 
the past thirty years. Potbellied, balding, in a gray sweater vest, 
he is part of the race of show-business elves who make things 
work. "You can sit there if you don't say a fucking word," he 
growls after my whispered plea. He nods toward the stage 
where the bass players are finding a groove and the horn 
players are hitting high notes, in preparation for the next hour 
or so of rehearsals. 

Ehrlich checks the action onstage against the minute-by-minute 
script contained in a fat three-ring binder that lies open on the 
long table in front of him. Strictly for kicks, someone has 
outfitted the director's table to resemble an Italian red-sauce 
joint, complete with red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth, 
cheese platter, loaf of rustic semolina bread, wicker-clad bottle 
of Ruffino Chianti, and scattered tea lights atop the two ancient 
nineteen-inch Sony monitors, which allow the director to see 
the stage the way that the Grammys audience will see it from 
their sofas. 

"OK, guys. So we'll take it from the top," Ehrlich says, 
surrounded by a mix of old guys, fat guys, and younger 
women, one of whom kindly rescued me from Justin 
Timberlake's bleary-eyed goons when they tried to throw me 
out of the arena for using my iPhone to photograph the setup. 
JT is a stone perfectionist, and so it is odd that he is not yet 
onstage, more than ten minutes into his scheduled rehearsal 



time. In his absence, a backup dancer hits the star's marks at 
three-quarter speed so that the cameraman can track the 
routine. All at once, the band falls silent mid-phrase, as if 
someone pressed pause, opening a path for a lean sweatshirted 
figure who looks like a software engineer or some other kind of 
educated geek, with a navy wool mugger's cap, pulled down 
low over his close-cropped hair. 

The news that Justin Timberlake has a head cold on the eve of 
the Grammys is as close to a scoop as I am likely to get, I am 
thinking, as JT's goons give me their best wait-till-we-catch- 
you-after-school glare. The band starts up again with a Brazilian 
pop-funk groove. "Show ya how to do this, hah!" the star says, 
feeling out the dynamics of the vocal in the high-roofed arena. 
The drum pops. Pop! Pop! Pop! It's Vegas-casino-hotel-lobby 
party-time music, with a wink. JT moves like a dancer onstage, 
slowing down to create lacunae in the vocal, then speeding up 
again to further emphasize his unique sense of time. The music 
stops, and two stand-ins read from a cue card behind my head: 
"A real Grammy moment to remember, featuring [some actor]." 



Like Italian film stars of the 1960s, or English soccer players of 
the '80s, rock stars are a quaintly dated category of celebrated 
person. I sympathize with rock stars because of the sense of 
isolation that is, or was, inherent in their antiquated mode of 
stardom. Having grown up in a family setup that might be 
generously described as bunker-like, I also find myself drawn 



to people who were sick as children, or suffered from allergies, 
or buried themselves in books, or moved around a lot, or grew 
up in cults led by preachers and gurus, or on military bases and 
other remote or highly regimented places, which are getting 
ever harder to find thanks to Facebook and Twitter and 
WhatsApp and the buzzing hive of seines and chats and tweets 
and chatter and casual surveillance in which no man may speak 
from a burning bush or a shimmering mist, or be uncamera- 
ready, or cranky, or worse still, out of touch. 

It also occurs to me that maybe the age of instant 
communication that killed off the rock stars is all one big 
misunderstanding. What the techies missed was that the person 
Mick Jagger was just a contributor to the invented character of 
Mick Jagger, rock star, who represented a collective investment 
of x amount of imaginative capital and hard cash by record 
companies, art directors, and fans. Mick Jagger, the person, 
could hardly have created Mick Jagger, the rock star, alone in 
his bedroom using Instagram and Pro Tools, let alone 
programmed the contingent and chaotic human and creative 
interactions with Keef and the late, great junkie producer 
Jimmy Miller that went into the recording of Exile on Main St. 
and Let It Bleed. Disdaining the wasteful, elitist space where 
bands hankered after record-company expense accounts that 
would pay for hookers and villas in the South of France, Silicon 
Valley presented itself as the tribune of average-Joe air 
guitarists who never got their shot at the American Dream. It 
was easy to stoke resentment against the perks enjoyed by the 
pros while spreading the easy gospel of democratic cultural 



production. Every boy and girl could be Virginia Woolf and 
Keith Richards and David Foster Wallace depending on what 
day of the week it was, thanks to fun new digital software that 
ushered in a freshly branded universe of frictionless self- 
gratification in which all movies and books and music would be 
free, because they should be free, because they were made to 
be free, because paying for stuff is an unconscionable rip-off in 
a world where stuff was meant to be free, and who else does art 
belong to if not to the people, right? And so, the tech moguls 
could pose as liberators and revolutionaries who would cut out 
the middlemen while sucking up the market cap of the music 
business, the newspaper business, and other sadly benighted 
industries. 

The paradoxical result of these acts of creative destruction has 
been the elevation of a handful of recording artists like 
Beyonce, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber to 
previously unseen levels of wealth and fame, in the same 
moment that the product on which their fame is, or was, 
based— namely, music— has been rendered worthless. With a 
flick of the wrist that any old-school three-card-monte dealer 
would admire, the value that once inhered in the creative 
product was moved to the bottom line of Silicon Valley 
companies with smiley interfaces. 

Those old-fashioned types who still haven't heard of WhatsApp 
or Grindr are left with the Grammys, whose folksy-sounding 
title conveys an accurate impression of the age bracket at 
which the made-for-television event is pitched. Broadcast in 



early February, the Grammys are the music businesses half- 
assed version of the Oscars, an industry-sponsored shindig 
whose aim is to encourage an ever-shrinking fan base to keep 
buying CDs, downloads, or whatever music-related product 
people might spend their pennies on. My favorite thing about 
the Grammys is the odd time warp that the broadcasts still 
somehow manage to generate; they are like transmissions from 
a distant planet on which rock stars still dance and sing like 
Mick. 

My specific excuse for visiting Los Angeles for the Grammys 
was a special-delivery envelope that had arrived at my doorstep 
in Brooklyn two months earlier, while I was playing with my 
daughter on the rug and watching the ferry boats ply the open 
harbor between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Inside a 
black box, encircled by a detachable gold band that promised 
QUITE SIMPLY, THE MOST FABULOUS PARTY OF THE 
YEAR!, was an invitation to attend Clive Davis's annual party at 
the Beverly Hilton the night before the Grammys, on Saturday, 
February 9, with cocktails at 7pm followed by dinner at 8. "Yes, 
the entertainment will be off the hook/' it promised, on behalf 
of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and 
Clive Davis, the party's true host, the Caligula of his ego-driven 
business, and by all accounts a man who knows how to give a 
party. 

The collapse of the so-called creative industries has happened 
with such blinding speed that people outside New York are not 
entirely aware that glossy magazines are dead. This, as far as I 



can figure out, is why I was invited to the most fabulous party 
of the year. Clive Davis's sense of hospitality was also 
evidenced by the invitation he sent to Cissy Houston, the 
gospel legend and mother of Whitney Houston, who died in a 
bathtub on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton in 2012, 
directly above the ballroom where Davis's party continued on 
without her. "I got an invitation to the party, which is the most 
obscene thing," Cissy Houston told a reporter— "I don't know 
why they would want me to come to the party in which she 
died, you know?" 

Davis's invitation to Houston was clearly not intended as an 
insult— it is simply what happens when you combine the 
rampant egomania required to float a five-decade hit-making 
career with the native human discomfort with tragedy. What 
Clive Davis loves isn't music but stars, who are not necessarily 
musicians, but rather highly specialized forms of human. Stars 
love Davis because he is a sharp Harvard lawyer with the heart 
of a piano-bar diva. His monthly singles meetings back in the 
day when he ran Columbia Records, from 1967 to 1973, when 
it was Bob Dylan's label, and Janis Joplin's label, and a lot of 
other people's label— back when labels told consumers what to 
buy— were held in a long, narrow, windowless bunker with a 
control room at one end and huge speakers the size of double- 
door refrigerators at the other. Davis sat at the head of a long 
table, alone. He would formally cue each new record— "This Is 
Earth, Wind & Fire"— which would be played at huge volume 
from the speakers directly behind his head, and everyone in 
the room would sit and watch him as he kept a stone face, 



nodding almost imperceptibly to the beat. Or, if he didn't like 
the record, after a few bars his mouth would turn down, as if 
he had bitten into a bad oyster, and then everyone else's mouth 
would turn down, too, meaning that it was dead on arrival. 

Nobody at Columbia Records trusted anybody else, in part 
because Clive Davis didn't trust himself, a driven boy from 
Brooklyn who went to New York University and then to 
Harvard law school, where he acquired tweed jackets and 
cashmere turtlenecks. He was abruptly fired from Columbia, 
ostensibly for using company money to pay for his son's bar 
mitzvah, a fact that was uncovered after a failed federal 
investigation into payola called "Project Sound." There was also 
the fact that Davis's assistant David Wynshaw, the former 
director of A&R for Columbia Records, apparently had a side 
business operating companies in partnership with a Genovese 
crime family associate named Patsy Falcone, who was involved 
in importing heroin into New York. Davis's comeback as head 
of Arista and then Sony, where he now runs his own label, J 
Records, left him with perhaps an even greater need to prove 
how indispensable his genius was, and is. "What am I looking 
for?! I'm looking for hits! What kind of artists? I'm looking for 
stars!" he would rant at producers who were young or foolish 
enough to ask him for guidance. "That's all there is, hits!" 

Davis is also famous among producers for the randomness of 
the details on which he fixates. "He gets very involved in 
everything, but that's where you go crazy, because the details 
make no sense whatsoever," one producer who'd worked with 



Davis told me, relating a story about a recording session 
scheduled for Davis's annual yachting trip, which starts at 
Monte Carlo and ends in Capri. The day after Davis left, the 
producer was driving across the George Washington Bridge 
when his phone rang. "Uh, the high hat in bar thirty-one is, uh, 
it's not right, so we need to fix that," Davis began from his 
offshore yacht. The drummer was also slowing down around 
the bridge of the song, which in turn was throwing off the 
hook, he explained to the producer. "And the thing is you 
know, these are programmed drum-machine tracks," the 
producer sighed when he told me the story. "It can't slow 
down." One clever sound engineer learned to keep two 
different mixes of every song, A and B: when Davis would call 
insisting that something was wrong with A, the engineer would 
send in B. When Davis would object to B, the engineer would 
send A, and keep going back and forth between the two mixes, 
until Davis got tired. 

What also set Davis apart was his undeniable talent for hearing 
hits— the spark in a song, which he called the Wow Factor. 
"Where's the wow?! I don't hear the wow! We've got to get it 
in there!" he would object, driving musicians and producers 
crazy. Songs Davis didn't like were "clunky and funky," or other 
self-coined terms of art that he drew from his famously addled 
patois. "It's Borax!" Davis might object, leaving his men to 
figure out what exactly that meant for the fate of a song. But the 
best way to gauge Clive's reaction to a song was how long it 
took for his finger to rise up from the surface of his highly 
polished conference-room table, where he sat with his eyes 



closed, to the stop button on his tape player, dive's Crooked 
Finger of Doom! All of which only added to his reputation as 
the recording industry's ultimate mack daddy. 



Justin Timberlake, Disney boy genius, then of the boy band 'N 
Sync, and now a grown-up man with a cold, is no longer 
wearing his hat, and after two abortive run-throughs he has 
found a passable approximation of his own voice. "Let me 
show you a few things," he croons to the thirty black musicians 
who have found day work backing a white kid with some real 
talent to go with his millions of teenybopper fans. What JT will 
show them is that stardom is hard, too. His manager, Johnny 
Wright, a middle-aged black man in a checked shirt and a golf 
sweater that make him look like a former member of the 
Temptations or the Four Tops, except richer and in better 
health, sits next to Ehrlich at the director's table, offering a 
stream of precise, constructive commentary on the way the 
action onstage is being translated to the monitors. "The whole 
song needs to be about the movement of the band with Justin," 
Wright offers. "Where he pulls the handkerchief, that whole 
movement, we need to tighten that." 

Ehrlich relays the comment into his headphones, and the star 
runs through the beginning of the routine again. Wright peers 
in at the monitor and shakes his head at the sloppy camera 
work. "He's barely marking Justin. If he could give us a little 
more definition of the moves," he suggests. He gazes up at the 



stage. "Looks great, by the way/' he offers. JT takes out his 
earpiece. "One mo' time/' he says, sounding just enough like 
Marvin Gaye for the routine to fall into the market-friendly 
space between homage and rip-off. Like all dancers, he is a self- 
punishing control freak who gets off on the precision of his 
routines. "What Johnny is saying is make it more cut-y," 
Ehrlich translates. "The singles on the singers and Justin. Then 
do your accents on the occasional horns/' 

Take three is when JT turns up the intensity of his performance 
and delivers the vocal for real: "I show you how to do this, 
huh?" And he does. But the brute fact of the music business is 
that, in this day and age, not even a genius like Clive Davis has 
any idea how many records JT will sell. The number could be 
100,000 or 5 million. To be a music executive means linking 
your dream to someone else's dream, and being open to the 
entirely real possibility that the person whose dream you share 
may be a 15 -year-old girl from Barbados or a guy who walks 
into your office with pancake makeup and a cowbell around his 
neck. Having faith in such people is a stretch; betting one's 
financial future on what you imagine other people will hear in 
their music is a further stretch, especially at the fag-end of the 
music business where a multitalented ex-Mouseketeer like 
Justin Timberlake is the closest thing that anyone can find to 
Jimi Hendrix. 

"Teachers really are the unsung heroes of our creative 
community," JT recites, sounding perfectly sincere as he reads 
from his cue card. He puts his wool cap back on his head and 



swigs from a water bottle as Ehrlich mounts the stage and 
engages in animated back-and-forth about the "some actor" 
joke. "I worked with him on the first 'N Sync show/' Ehrlich 
offers, when he comes back to his table. "My mantra is and has 
always been, they're not your friends." 



Julie Frost, one of the top LA songwriters of the moment, 
reminds me a little bit of the mid-'90s pop-folk star Jewel, if 
Jewel were ten years older and weighed sixty pounds more, 
and were therefore disqualified from any conceivable shot at 
Clive Davis's Borax-ed version of music-biz stardom. Her path 
to the business's current version of riches and fame is as typical 
as any other: she grew up with hippie parents in Vermont, 
went off to a fancy boarding school on scholarship, and then 
returned to the poverty-stricken backwoods New England to 
care for old people, before fleeing to Chicago, where she 
became a hit at children's birthday parties, which in turn led to 
a singer-songwriter showcase in New York and a light detour 
through the hit-making factories in Atlanta, before she arrived 
on the scene in Los Angeles, won some prizes, got rich, and 
bought a house in Marina del Rey. Even as a child, she loved 
music, listening to Carole King, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, 
Cream, Prince, and the soundtrack to Grease on oversize 
headphones plugged into her parents' stereo. She liked to dance 
around the room, pretending she was the singer and admiring 
her reflection in the big glass windows. "If I didn't get that time 



I was like, crap/' she remembers, stretching out her legs in a 
cold, windowless studio in West Hollywood, where she will be 
writing songs this afternoon. 

In Chicago, she worked as a cocktail waitress and then got a job 
at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where she taught kids 
how to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Songs began to 
come to her more frequently. "It was as if I had found this 
radio station and it was just my music and it would just come in 
anytime of the day or night," she remembers with a faraway 
look, "and when it happened it's like it took precedence over 
everything, like it was a fax from God." Along the way, she also 
accumulated a growing number of handwritten rejection letters 
from music-business executives. "Even from Clive," she 
remembers. "My boy Clive. 'You're critically great, but it's not 
commercial enough.' That's what I got a lot." When I ask her 
what "not commercial enough" meant, she shrugs. "I wasn't 
pretty enough." 

As a fixture in the Chicago scene, she soon realized that 
working as a freelance artist was an unspeakably cruel life, by 
Western standards. "You have to make every dollar with an 
hour of work," she explains. "You never get a day off. You have 
no benefits, and you have no rights." As her control over her 
craft increased, she realized that there was an important 
difference between faxes from God and hit songs. "I just was 
writing real, true songs," she realized. "Which is different from 
writing a hit song." At the time, she imagined that if you wrote 
enough songs, one of them would probably be a hit. 



Atlanta changed that. There was sex and marijuana smoke in 
the air, and a science of writing hits, which was different from 
sitting in some crappy half-underground club and drinking 
coffee. She learned to ask herself, "What's the most amazing 
thing that can happen between me and this track?" She 
especially enjoyed the little ritual when the song was done and 
everybody would come in and nod their heads. One day, she 
imagined, that would be her song. 

To make that day come faster, she sent an email out of the blue 
to "Big Jon" Piatt, which if you know the songwriting business 
is a pretty audacious move. Jon Piatt is the head of 
Warner/Chappell Music and formerly the head of EMI. But 
what really makes him important are the artists he's signed, a 
list that includes Kanye West, Beyonce, and Jay-Z, all of whom 
love Big Jon and trust him to bring them hits; the "Big" in his 
name comes from the fact that he is at least six-and-a-half feet 
tall and built like a linebacker, with a shaved head and rings on 
all his fingers, and the jocular good manners of a man who is 
too physically imposing to be trifled with by anyone, big or 
small. The other reason artists trust Big Jon Piatt is that he is, 
by all accounts, a person who loves music, and who makes sure 
that his artists and songwriters get paid. 

There is no shortage of good stories about Big Jon, one of 
which is about the email that Julie Frost sent him at 2:30 one 
morning, with no introduction whatsoever, with two songs 
attached— one called "Beautiful Day" and the other called 
"Satellite." Big Jon wrote her back and said he loved "Beautiful 



Day/' It became his happy song, which he blasted from his 
floor-to-ceiling speakers while he sat at his desk working three 
phones at a time and waving his arms. He flew Frost out to LA 
and signed her to a music-publishing deal with EMI, which she 
has since repaid by winning the Eurovision song contest, an 
AS CAP award, and a Golden Globe, and by writing hits for 
Beyonce— "it's just been like a fairy tale ever since/' she says. 
It's a good life, living next to the ocean with her people while 
accumulating millions in songwriting royalties. 

Her writing session today is at Mike Caren's shop in West 
Hollywood, which consists of six new and decently appointed 
studios off a main hallway with black-and-white pictures of 
Atlantic recording artists hung on the walls, to give it some of 
that hallowed-by-history feel. Mike Caren is an up-and-coming 
music exec who has been in the business since he was a 
teenager at Beverly Hills High School. In a gray T-shirt and 
stonewashed blue pants and sneakers, he could be Justin 
Timberlake's fantasy-football partner. If 99-cent downloads are 
where the music business is still at, even the fractions of a 
penny per play that Spotify pays out might still add up to real 
money, Caren believes. In the old days, he explains, a day in a 
studio with an engineer cost a minimum of $800— a cost that 
was usually borne, directly or indirectly, by the artist. If you 
imagine that a great songwriter might write 250 days a year and 
produce four or five hits, then the odds for each $800 spin of 
the roulette wheel were one in fifty. Fire the kitchen staff, put 
in Pro Tools, and pay an engineer by the hour, and you could 
use the same casino chip to pay for ten days of recording. That 



was Caren's first discovery. 



His second discovery was that he could encourage the writing 
of hits by urging songwriters to follow his nine rules of hit 
songwriting. While Caren's rules are not comprehensive or 
exclusive, it is easy to measure their value by a glance at the 
dozens of gold and platinum records hanging in his office. He is 
happy to run down his rules for me. "First, it starts with an 
expression of 'Hey/ 'Oops/ 'Excuse me/" he begins. "Second is 
a personal statement: Tm a hustler, baby/ 'I wanna love you/ 'I 
need you tonight/ Third is telling you what to do: 'Put your 
hands up/ 'Give me all your love/ 'Jump/ Fourth is asking a 
question: 'Will you love me tomorrow/ 'Where have you been 
all my life/ 'Will the real Slim Shady please stand up/" 

He takes a deep breath, and rattles off another four rules. "Five 
is logic/' he says, "which could be counting, or could be 
spelling or phonetics: '1-2-3-4, let the bodies hit the floor/ or 
'Ca-li-fornia is comp-li-cated/ those kind of things. Six would 
be catchphrases that roll off the tip of your tongue because you 
know them: 'Never say never/ 'Rain on my parade/ Seven 
would be what we call stutter, like, 'D-d-don't stop the beat/ but 
it could also be repetition: 'Will the real Slim Shady please 
stand up, please stand up, please stand up/ Eight is going back 
to logic again, like hot or cold, heaven or hell, head to toe, all 
those kind of things." 

The ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. Why? Because 
most people who are listening to music are actually doing 



something else, he explains. They are driving a car, or working 
out, or dancing, or flirting. Silence gives you time to catch up 
with the lyrics if you are drunk or stoned. If you are singing 
along, silence gives you time to breathe. "Michael Jackson, his 
quote was 'Silence is the greatest thing an entertainer has/" 
Caren continues. '"I got a feeling/ space-space-space, 'Do you 
believe in life after love/ space-space-space-space-space." 

Silence. Another rule of hit songwriting is simplicity, he adds, 
which is learning to say the most with the fewest words. He 
ticks off his rules on his fingers: expression, questions, 
commands, repetitions, logic, personal statements, cliches, and 
space. That makes eight rules. He shrugs. 

His favorite example of a song that uses the most rules in the 
fewest words is a hit by the rapper Ludacris, "What's Your 
Fantasy," which starts off with the lyric "I wanna li-li-li-lick you 
from your head to your toes." Caren loves that song. "In the 
first line: a personal statement, 'I want to/ a stutter, repetition, 
Ti-lick you/ logic, 'from your head to your toes, move from the 
bed down to the down to the, to the floor/" he explains. "'I 
gotta know'— another personal statement— and asks a question, 
'What's your fantasy?' So he's got six of them, in the first two 
lines of the song." 

We stroll down the halls, where the writers are working in 
rooms. In the studio next door, a young-looking blond white 
guy, who is at least six inches too tall to be in a boy band, and 
his goofy Australian writing partner are working on a song for 



Flo Rida, a rapper from the South whose posterior-oriented hits 
routinely sell three or four million copies. "I've been to a 
million places/' the Aussie offers: 

"I'm not too good with faces 
"But I'll never forget that ass. " 

Caren winces. "You have another six weeks to come up with a 
summer jam." 

Julie Frost is writing during the evening session with Andrew 
Frampton, a tall, fit, nerdily handsome Brit in black-rimmed 
glasses and a black T-shirt who cofounded Photogenic Records 
and writes hits on the side. He looks too gawky to be a front 
man in a band; it is easier to imagine him checking the damage 
waivers at the rental counter on the contract for someone else's 
touring van. He grew up loving music and writing songs, and 
spent five years trying to break into the UK music scene with 
his first band, which he formed at the age of 13 with his 
brother and a friend, and which after five years of hustling 
achieved the holy grail: a £100,000 advance. The band then 
flopped, leaving Frampton with his old love for writing songs 
and a new appreciation of the career-determining value of hits. 
He left London for LA, where he came to love the weather, and 
the challenge of walking into a windowless room at noon, 
introducing himself to someone he had never met before, and 
writing hits. 



Songwriters tend to be optimists, in part because so few songs 
they write are ever recorded, and so few recorded songs 
become hits. The fact that most money in songwriting these 
days comes from radio airplay greatly influences the kinds of 
songs writers have any interest in writing. A number-one Top 
40 hit in America is probably worth $1.5 to $2 million in 
airplay, while a song on a platinum album— meaning an album 
that sells a million copies, which is a rarity these days— is 
worth only about $90,000. Web-based streaming services like 
Spotify and Pandora pay fractions of a penny per play, making 
them the equivalent of digital sweatshops where the world's 
greatest singers, songwriters, and musicians work for less than 
the daily wage of garment workers in Bangladesh. Max Martin 
and Dr. Luke, the most successful songwriters in the world 
right now, make $20 million a year from airplay. Below them is 
an echelon of a few dozen songwriters who make between $1.5 
and $6 million a year, most of which also comes from airplay. 
Songwriters like Julie Frost or Andrew Frampton might make a 
bit less than that by creating fifty to sixty copyrights a year, 
with past copyrights generating maybe half their income. 

Today, Julie and Andrew are joined by two kids from Paris who 
write synth pop. One is wearing a black V-neck sweater, and 
the younger one is wearing a LOLcats T-shirt. The hope in the 
room is that the few bars of digitally inflected chord 
progression they have brought with them on a MacBook Air is 
the un-popped kernel of an original pop song. Creatively, their 
music is something rather than nothing. It is a place to start, 
which may be more or less random, but can pick up new 



inflections and textures and ideas as the evening rolls on. But 
first everyone has to deal with the monster in the room. There 
is no sense in being here without at least trying to imagine the 
moody Bastille-tinted synth riffs as the backbone of a Flo Rida 
summer hit that might generate millions in airplay. 

"Have you heard the new Flo Rida stuff?" Julie asks. "It's a 
whole new vibe." 

"I can't believe 

"White girl got some ass. " 

"That's introspective Flo/' she explains. Then she looks glum. "I 
don't want to do another ass song," she laments. Then she 
brightens. "All the way to ass town!" she suggests. Andrew 
chimes in. 

"I want money 

"Going all the way to ass town. " 

Julie reaches into a brown bag and withdraws a clear plastic tub 
of chopped salad. "I do 500 calories Monday and Wednesday" 
she offers. She and Andrew trade tips on staying fit in writer's 
rooms while the Frenchies fiddle with their MacBook. "A good 
chord progression, 1, 2, 5," the younger-looking one says. Then 
he presses a button, and plays the chord progression backward. 
Andrew Frampton looks over at the screen. 

"Cool," he says. "What program is that?" 



"ACID Pro/' one of them answers, "from Sony/' 

Julie stands up and raises her hands above her hand. "Ass! Ass! 
Ass! Ass!" she chants. She surveys the room again, and then 
hammers a final nail in the coffin, just to be sure. "Let's not try 
to write for Flo," she says. "Let's write a big song." The 
engineer loops the track from Paris, and Julie steps up to the 
mic and starts off with some wordless scat. 

"Ooooo-dah oooooo-dah 
"Mmmmmmmm dah dah dah uh. " 

"That's the payoff or chant line," she explains. She pauses, and 
tries to make the nonsense syllables resolve into recognizable 
words and phrases. 

"When you hold me all day and night 
"I'm going to get it right " 

She pauses again, searching for new emotion in the syllables, 
plucking sense from the ether of her subconscious. 

"And when you hold me 
"I feel alive. " 

She looks pleased. "That's an idea!" she says. 



"And when you hold me 
"I feel a lie. " 



She shakes her head. 



"And when you hold me 
"I come alive. 

"I want you to— hold me!" 

The shape of a pop song is beginning to emerge, but she has 
left herself with nowhere to go. "It needs something dumber in 
the middle." She sighs. 

Andrew nods, from his place on the couch. "The hook could be 
any kind of big pop hook/' he offers. "It feels like the second 
part has got to pick up, or else we're going to get caught in this 
linear thing." He improvises a chorus, and then Julie sings, 

"Throw that halo! 
"Down on the floor. " 

Andrew looks pleased. "If you throw your halo away, it's like 
someone could catch it," he explains. "Throwing it on the floor, 
that's a bit more rebellious." 

Julie's songcraft is less grounded in analysis. "I like halos, in 
general," she says. "It sings really good. Or we could just say, 
'Hey Fuckhead, please listen to this hook.'" 

Andrew steps up to the mic and expands the chorus. "Throw 
your halo/ down on the floor / because you ain't gonna need it no 
more. " Then he steps back again, looking for a clever bit of 



logic. "This is a dance song. Set your devil free. Don't have any 
inhibitions/' he explains. "What if everything they are going to 
do on the floor is like what you would do to a drink? Pop the 
top." 

"We're gonna pop the top 
"And drink up every drop 
"'Cause when the par-ty starts 
"We're never gonna stop. " 

Jimmy the engineer doubles and triples up Julie and Andrew's 
turns at the mic until they sound like plausible lead vocals on a 
hit record, rather than two songwriters fooling around in the 
studio. As Jimmy works, Andrew stands over his shoulders and 
rearranges the bits of digital matter into ever more compelling 
poppy curves and hooks. "Now punch in all four of those 
tracks," he instructs. Following his directions, the engineer 
stacks bars of purple, blue, and sea foam-green digital stuff 
above a black EKG-like readout of the melody. 

The next few hours are spent fooling with Mike Caren's rule 
book to find couplets that stick. Julie nods when I suggest that 
this part of the job is like doing a crossword puzzle. "But it's 
like a really hard crossword puzzle," she adds. "Like the Sunday 
New York Times crossword puzzle. In French." 

A half hour later, a studio executive named Ben comes in, 
wearing tan suede Gucci loafers and jeans. He loves the song. "I 
think it's a 100 percent home run for Ke$ha," he offers. "For 



Maroon 5, the girl is always torturing Adam. There's got to be 
something dark in it. But maybe Ke$ha can do the hook . . ." 

In England, someone says, there is a guy named "Eg" White, 
who is maybe the last true, great producer, a guy who hears his 
own music his own way, in his own head. He did the song 
"Chasing Pavements" for Adele. "The great thing about Eg, he's 
a very posh English guy, and you go to his place, he's got all 
vintage gear, a guitar with broken strings, a tambourine with 
one bell on it," Andrew says, his voice a bit wistful and 
admiring of a fantasy inherent in his mode of production, and 
therefore, according to the cruel logic of the dialectic, merely 
fuel for a synthesis as yet unseen. "Even the top guys don't 
press him. He never works past six, because his wife won't let 
him. He's a seriously talented guy." 



Usher is standing onstage in the Beverly Hilton ballroom in a 
white T-shirt with a heavy gold chain around his neck. It's just 
past noon, and the star is playful and at ease, rehearsing his 
lines for Clive Davis's party while balancing a three-quarters- 
full takeout cup of coffee in his right hand. 

"All right!" he exclaims, the reflection of the house lights 
bouncing off his gold chain, competing with the dazzling 
whiteness of his teeth. Then, for no particular reason, aside 
from the performer's high spirits, he breaks into "La Bamba," 
exploring the more exuberant textures of his silky, incredible 



voice while looking out over the stacks of chairs and scratched- 
up folding tables that will soon cover the ballroom floor. "Y 
arriba y arriba," he sings, and then he stops, and smiles at the 
guitarist, who is seated to his left. "That's the only part I know," 
he says apologetically. 

Usher glides through his lines without breaking a sweat, or 
giving off any of the neurotic intensity of a Justin Timberlake. 
He is Usher, a legitimate heir to a deep American musical 
culture, who will be performing for five hundred of his peers 
and not for a television audience of tens of millions of viewers, 
most of whom couldn't care less about music, or his music. He 
pirouettes onstage while balancing his coffee with a casual ease 
that suggests it is attached to his hand; if you could see inside 
the paper cup as Usher was dancing, the surface of the coffee 
would probably be flat. "I realized that I wanted to be a star, 
cha-cha," he vamps, hitting the high emotional notes in his 
lines without wasting effort on filler. He turns to the place 
where the evening's honoree, the music executive L. A. Reid, 
will be standing. "L. A., thank you for fighting me on that," he 
says, with palpable sincerity. 

"Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, I was singing for a lot of 
people," he says, or, rather, sings. Usher is so inherently 
musical that even when he delivers tribute lines on an empty 
stage with his morning cup of coffee in hand, it sounds like a 
song. He may not be a first-generation genius like Sam Cooke, 
or a second-generation genius like Marvin Gaye, or even a 
third-generation genius like Michael Jackson. But it is easy to 



imagine some version of the young Usher opening for Sam 
Cooke at a Georgia nightclub back in the day. He rewards the 
four people sitting at tables in the empty ballroom with two 
minutes worth of "We Belong Together/' and then he calls it a 
day. 

Watching rehearsals for Davis's party beats watching rehearsals 
for the Grammys, because the room is so much smaller, and the 
music is so much better, and also because I get to sit next to 
Michael Ahern, a white-haired, blue-eyed Irish theater-director- 
type from New York who has been in charge of sound and 
staging for Davis's parties for more than thirty years. Ahern 
wears a jaunty red scarf tied around his neck and a tweed jacket 
over a navy sweatshirt to ward off the chill of the hotel- 
ballroom air conditioning; his wire-rimmed glasses, pushed 
down on the bridge of his nose, give him the look of an 
avuncular policeman. When he sees something he doesn't like, 
he looks over the top of his glasses, and his blue eyes fade to 
the color of icicles. 

"You promise that you won't fuck me up?" he asks me after I 
make my way past security to the ballroom, where the 
Lumineers are dealing with a broken cello. The Lumineers' "Ho 
Hey" was the third-most-shared song in Brooklyn on Spotify, 
the Grammys publicist informed me. The Lumineers' music is 
the musical equivalent of something you spread on a cracker, 
Ahern agrees. Nevertheless, this gig is dear. 

Someone stops by the table with a question about lighting, who 



Ahern deals with quickly and then starts to tease. "I love you 
too, Bill/' Ahern calls out in a calm, even-tempered voice. "Tell 
your story walking." Dry-ice smoke billows around a screen lit 
in electric blues and purples. As rehearsal time lengthens, the 
power guy stops by to talk about the outage at last year's Super 
Bowl, which was held in New Orleans— a city notorious among 
show-biz folk for its drunken stagehands. "I find it engaging 
and charming, and it's the kind of thing that you want to learn 
about in anthropology class, but it's not the kind of thing you 
want in a fucking production," Ahern reasonably offers. 

After making sure that the Whitney Houston tribute video has 
been received, he turns his attention to the dry ice. "Benny 
Collins loves things like that," he says, loud enough for the 
hulking man nearby to overhear. "Benny, do you want to play 
with dry ice?" On cue, Benny wanders over. "You were serious 
about the dry ice?" he asks. Ahern gives a paternal nod and 
points with his thumb in the direction of the smoke billowing 
from behind the screen, stage right, which features none other 
than Clive Davis himself with his trademark three-piece suit, 
bald head and glasses, talking on an endless loop, his face 
blown up to maybe fifty times its actual size. The fact that the 
sound has been turned off adds a paranoid tinge to the 
atmosphere of the room; it's a tribute of sorts to the 
Ozymandias of the music business, the master of a once- 
glorious star-fucking universe that has been sucked into the 
black hole of YouTube. 

On second thought, maybe it's the rock stars who got tired. 



Next up on stage is Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's lanky guitarist— 
an old face from the East Village in the '80s, back when there 
was a scene, meaning rents that musicians and other artists 
could afford. Kaye is followed by a procession of burly men, 
each carrying an armful of pink roses: centerpieces for the 
three great tiers of banquet tables at which Davis's guests will 
be seated. Following behind the parade of roses is Patti Smith, 
legendary artist, autobiographer, poet, rock star. "One-two-two, 
bing-bing-check," she says, in her dry way, into the mic. 

Smith was the goddess of the Lower East Side when it was 
overrun by junkies. Onstage with her is a band of graying 
hipsters who have become their own ghosts. She looks out into 
the empty sea of wooden tables in search of something. 
"Where is Clive sitting?" she asks, squinting, but Davis is not in 
the house, or even on the screen, which is now running plugs 
for Harman, Hilton, MasterCard, and Hyundai, the corporate 
sponsors of the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons, which is the 
official name of tonight's event. Michael Ahern compares the 
floor plan with the arrangements in front of him. "Clive is still 
setting up seventy tables," he explains. 

"Can we have some of the lights down a little? They're so 
bright," she asks. If Usher is smooth, Smith is abrasive; she 
looks like a female Keith Richards, without the smack. The 
band behind her launches into a mid-period Sonic Youth- 
inspired East Village drone while Smith explains that the 
people have the power— "the power to redeem the work of 
fools," she sings. It's an upbeat sentiment. "They're used to 



dealing with heavy bass," she says, gesturing at the musicians. 
"It's making me nauseous. It sounds good, though/' She shades 
her brow, and looks out at the room, where about a dozen 
stagehands and their families have gathered to breathe in some 
rock and roll. 

"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," she snarls. 
"Feedback on my vocal." Then she tries again. When that one is 
over, she launches into her sandpaper-voiced version of 
"Gloria." G-L-O-R-I-A. It's a bad scene from five decades ago, 
filtered through the reverb of a three-decades-ago bad scene. 
But to say that scenes are pure until infected by commerce is to 
get something badly wrong about the music business, namely 
that it was a business, in which even the greats wrote songs for 
money; money is how Americans show appreciation for art, or 
say they are sorry, or otherwise show that their sentiments 
have meaning and are truly felt. In addition to writing all the 
music and lyrics for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain designed the band's 
T-shirts and album covers and created shot-by-shot scripts for 
the band's videos on MTV, as well as edited the bios and other 
publicity materials that helped shape the band's narrative in the 
rock press. It was all part of his art, or inseparable from his art; 
it's what he got paid for. "Rock and roll is a commercial art 
form, it's not just about the music, it's about what you look like, 
it's about how you connect with an audience, it's about the 
photos that appear in the British trades." Nirvana's longtime 
manager, Danny Goldberg, told me this when I met with him 
in New York, before I left for the Grammys. Even when Cobain 
was nodding off on rock-star doses of heroin in the MTV 



editing suite, Goldberg remembers, he could still identify 
exactly where the camera should come in and when to cut 
away. "He had a dark side, but he was so nice to me, you know, 
it was so out of proportion to anything that I did for him," he 
remembered. "He was tremendously intellectually curious, 
incredibly creative, and had a great sense of humor; he was like 
a leprechaun or an elf. You'd go to wherever he was living, and 
he lived in a lot of places, and there'd be like reams of drawings 
and paintings and poems. He was also a great fan of other 
artists. He'd always be saying, 'You've got to hear Captain 
America, you've got to hear the Jesus Lizard,' or whatever those 
bands were." 



It's a sin to visit Southern California and not drive. Freed from 
the darkness of the ballroom, I get my car from the valet and 
head for the Pacific Coast Highway, where the sun is burning 
through the haze, allowing me to see the curve of the coastline 
on the way to Malibu. The traffic is so bad here now, my 
friends tell me, that no one commutes to work anymore. What 
used to take half an hour now takes an hour, and as a result 
everyone works at home, the musicians in their backyard 
studios, the producers on iPads, and the writers on MacBook 
Airs, thanks be to Steve Jobs. Paul Jackson Jr., who played 
guitar on so many of Michael Jackson's hits, was one of the 
pioneers of the Malibu recording dream of having a studio on 
your own property, in response to which the Studio Alliance of 



Southern California formed in order to prevent musicians from 
recording in their own homes. Now everyone has Pro Tools. 
Rick Rubin lives in Malibu, where he takes surfing lessons from 
Laird Hamilton, before Kanye shows up at his house to record. 

When my coastal drive is done, I head over to the Sony lot, and 
find my way to a large, hangar-like soundstage where Irving 
Azoff, the legendarily diminutive rock manager, is standing 
alone. On the stage in front of him, like a pop-culture mirage, 
are the Eagles, delivering a note-perfect version of "Hotel 
California." Azoff, not so affectionately known among his peers 
as the "Poison Dwarf/' is a delightful person who 
simultaneously managed the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely 
Dan when those bands were all at the height of their fame, 
earning himself a place in pop-music history as the gardener 
who encouraged the blossoming of the Southern California 
sound. 

Clive Davis and Irving Azoff are titanic opposing forces in the 
music biz, each representing a decades-long line of 
development that has been rendered obsolete by the rigors of 
the digital age. Davis is a flossy Roman emperor, all artifice and 
fiat, who secretly listens to '50s musicals at home, and this year 
will be bringing a revival of My Fair Lady to Broadway. Azoff is 
on the side of artists and songwriting craft; he hates digital 
everything. Both men are filthy rich. And they both know it's 
over. Azoff recently left his job as head of Live Nation, which 
for a time had made him the most powerful man in the music 
business, at least on paper. "I was king of shit," Azoff growls, 



when I ask him what it felt like to run what's left of the world 
he grew up in. The music business has collapsed, he says, in 
part because of the ever-widening split between songwriters 
and musicians, who have become less and less interested in 
learning to play their instruments, at the same time that 
audiences are less and less inclined to pay for music, while the 
federal government is less and less inclined to enforce legal 
protections for intellectual property. 

"What the internet has really done is it's taught generations of 
people now to believe if it comes on that machine it should be 
free," Azofif says in disgust. He tells me that he once checked 
the iTunes receipts for the Eagles, who are one of the top ten 
best-selling American recording artists in history. What he 
found was that in ten years on iTunes, the band had made 
about $700,000 from their share of however many millions of 
99-cent downloads— which equaled roughly the amount the 
band would make in under one hour of a single arena show. 
Azofif 's response was to threaten to pull the Eagles' music off 
iTunes, earning him an angry phone call from Steve Jobs. "I 
said, 'Steve, for eight or nine or seven, whatever number of 
years it was, you paid us what we made for playing forty-two 
minutes in Kansas City. We really don't need your $700,000. 
We'll just book another show." 

Still, Azofif is nearly unique in America's cratering creative fields 
for his belief that artists deserve to be rewarded for the hours, 
days, months, and years of hard, lonely work that goes into 
honing a craft at which very few people ever succeed at making 



a living. When I ask him about Clive Davis, he shrugs. "Look, 
there's two sides to everything Clive says/' he explains. 
"There's what was going on in his mind, and what really 
happened. God bless him, he's done some great things, but 
none of us are always right. In this business, if you're hitting 
.250 you're leading the league. It wasn't Clive's genius to 
recognize big acts in the Sixties, because in those days anybody 
that you signed was gonna happen. You went to Monterey Pop 
Festival, they each signed six acts, they each broke four of the 
six. You could just go there, take some drugs, and go, 'You're 
great, you're great.' You could just sign anybody who was 
playing because, in those days, 90 percent of the people who 
got on the bill were gonna happen. And you know, Clive never 
realized that." 



The night before the Grammys, I enter the Hilton ballroom, 
past three tiers of security and a long row of hired servants in 
tuxedos bearing canapes and mixed drinks, to find myself in a 
room that's vibrating with energy— a room filled with people 
who are waiting to see rock stars. There is nothing that rock 
stars respect more than institutions; Clive Davis is an 
institution. Being a rock star means taking your job seriously 
enough to keep the joke alive, so that everyone gets paid and 
laid. They're rock stars! 

Dave Grohl, who was the drummer in Nirvana before 
becoming a bona fide rock star in his own right, is the 



industry's favorite example of a model citizen— a responsible, 
bright, capable performer who writes hits. He is dressed for the 
evening in a black tuxedo jacket, which makes him look like a 
Romanian count, and he tells me some funny stories about 
Alice Cooper, who is standing in the middle of the room and 
loves golf. To his left is Diane Warren, who has written bushels 
of hits, from "A Smile Like Yours" (Natalie Cole) and "Blue Eyes 
Blue" (Eric Clapton) all the way down the alphabet to "You'll 
Never Stand Alone" (Whitney Houston). Next to her is a buzz- 
cut man who is giving off a really weird vibe that neither of us 
can identify. His jaw is clenched, and on the lapel of his white 
dinner jacket is a glittering starburst-like decoration so 
elaborate that it has to be fake. 

Cocktail hour ends, and the guests make their way to the 
ballroom, where the tables are now covered with white 
tablecloths, with centerpieces of pink roses. The man in the 
white dinner jacket is standing three feet in front of me, 
working his jaw beneath his buzz cut like an aging Marine 
colonel played by Robert Duvall. The decoration on his lapel is 
more ridiculous than Alice Cooper's hair or any rock-star outfit. 

It's clear that the moment is too good to pass up. "Forgive my 
ignorance," I ask politely, "but what country is that medal 
from?" His eyes focus on me for a moment, offering a rare 
combination of pity and rage. "It's the Presidential Medal of 
Freedom," he snaps, and then he looks away, hoping to catch a 
glimpse of Sting or whatever it is that he's come here for. It 
seems possible that he ran a corporation of some kind, 



like Procter & Gamble, and met Clive Davis at a rich man's club 
or retreat. "Why?" I wonder. It seems like a fair question. 

"Because I went to the moon/' he answers. 

I gape, and then I recover enough to ask him, "Which one are 
you?" I am sure that he is not Neil Armstrong, because 
Armstrong is dead. He gives me the look I would probably give 
people if I went to the moon and then came back, and then 
spent the rest of my life answering dumb questions from 
people who can't begin to understand what it would be like to 
go to the moon. 

"Buzz Aldrin," he answers. Now the entire scene made sense. 
When Buzz Aldrin came back to Earth, he spent years painting 
pictures of the moon, and of what Earth looks like from the 
moon. He also became an advocate for unorthodox drugs and 
reportedly developed a drinking problem. "Shit," I say. "What 
are you doing here?" 

"Thinking about the future!" he answers, a bit too quick. 
Something in the way I asked that question obviously spooked 
him. Being a bit jumpy seems like a reasonable lifelong 
consequence of being blasted off the earth into space, where 
for all you or anyone else knew you might have spent the rest 
of your brief existence. What's worse is to survive, and to carry 
the burden of something unspeakable. Astronauts and rock 
stars belong together, because they are both screens for the 
projections of masses of people who want their own 



experiences to mean something they can feel but can't name. It 
is no accident that Michael Jackson's denning move was called 
the moonwalk. He was also an astronaut. 

"You touched the moon/' I exclaim. While Buzz Aldrin is 
looking around for proof of intelligent life on Earth, I am trying 
to knit together the frayed ends of a story: the music business 
was the product of a dream of connection to something larger 
than ourselves, which was taken over first by large 
corporations, then by television, then by the internet, and then 
it died. The high-end psychological baggage that rock stars 
carry is a comforting and familiar-enough metaphor through 
which I understand the dynamics of my much less glamorous 
life, which died for the same reason that the music business 
died, and the dream of living on the moon or Mars died, 
namely, because enough people have bought the lie that being a 
poster on someone else's wall is the equivalent of actually 
knowing someone, or going somewhere, or creating art. 

"Would you sign my invitation to Mr. Davis's party, please?" I 
ask him. When the second man to walk on the moon touches 
his pen to a piece of paper that represents the apogee of 
achievement in the music business, the void will open. 

"I don't do that," Aldrin harrumphs. For a moment, I wonder 
what he means by "that"? Sign autographs? Use a pen? The 
clear instability in Aldrin's reality frame makes it impossible for 
me to be sure. Then he is gone. 



"It is not an understatement to say that our host is a true 
genius/' says Neil Portnow, the head of the Academy, 
welcoming Davis to the mic. "Many, many nights we heard the 
phenomenal Whitney Houston," intones Davis, in his capacity 
as master of ceremonies, which he will perform with unctuous 
pride for the next four hours or longer. "Whether you're an 
executive, a writer, a producer," he offers, "everyone in this 
room loves music," which seems fair enough. "I'm not sure 
you're aware of who is among us," he says, moving from his 
funeral director's voice to the voice of a waiter presenting the 
dessert cart at Le Cirque. 

"She's one of the most influential songwriters of our time, a 
winner of seven Grammys," he says. "She attends very few 
parties." The answer is Joni Mitchell, whose presence here 
certifies that Clive Davis is also a legend, whose guests are also 
legends, who are ordered according to the number of albums 
sold and Grammys won, and are joined by legends from other 
fields of popular endeavor. The multiplatinum artist is Sting. 
The quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl is Colin 
Kaepernick. There is something delightfully Dada about Davis's 
rambles. 

"You are going to cancel any ephemeral absentminded 
appointment you have ever made," the host instructs. "The 
culture of electronic dance music has to be represented ..." Odd 
head motion. "We all must adapt ..." Seeming aphasia, leading 



to a moment of sharp emotional clarity: "I need your respect 
and attention." He pays tribute to Sean "Diddy" Combs, as he 
does every year, to certify that he is down. "I was knocked out 
by his vision and articulateness," he explains. "And then he 
played me a song that sounded like a smash/' 

Now it's time for the music. "An all-time great ... I discovered 
this artist ... she's a living landmark ... she's a singer-songwriter 
... she's a photographer," he lists proudly, as though ticking off 
the features on his brand-new car. "It is with emotion ... it is 
with pride ... it is with pure love . . ." It is Patti Smith, with 
Lenny Kaye standing next to her in a tux. "Jesus died for 
somebody's sins," she sings, "but not mine." She still has a 
Michigan auto-body-factory yawp in her voice, and she looks 
even scarier onstage now that she is no longer young. In an 
oversize men's white shirt and a loose black tie, she looks like 
the devil's own bag lady. 

G-L-O-R-I-A. 

It is important to remember that Davis was young once, too. 
His office on the top floor of the Sony Building is furnished 
with a weird combination of robber-baron-era polished wood 
and Louis XIV decadence, which might impress musicians, 
most of whom grew up poor, like Clive, whose own childhood 
was as dysfunctional and fucked up as that of any ghetto 
rapper: his father had an affair with his aunt before both his 
parents died in accidents, leaving him in the care of the aunt 
whom his father was having the affair with. Now he helps 



multiplatinum recording artists fulfill their dreams. Alicia Keys 
had dreamed of performing with Aretha Franklin, and he made 
it happen. He brought Puffy to Capri. And once a year, the 
crazy beautiful Clive-o-centric world inside his 82-year-old 
skull matches up exactly with the world inside the ballroom of 
the Beverly Hilton. "Brandy, sit down," Davis commands. "I've 
met a lady who was married to a Beatle. That's always special," 
he muses, by way of introducing Olivia Harrison, George's 
widow. 

The Lumineers play a song, and the lead singer doesn't approve 
of the response. After all, the band had the third-most-popular 
song on Spotify in Brooklyn this summer. "Everybody stand 
up," he commands. "We'd like to feel a little more energy in the 
room." On the one hand, his request is a measure of the band's 
own inadequacy. But the room stands, in part because the 
request obeyed two of the nine rules of hit songwriting— a 
command, followed by a personal statement. 

"Thank you for listening, thank you for giving us a chance," the 
other boy Lumineer says earnestly. They are stars, for daring to 
ask for what they wanted at Clive Davis's party. Their music is 
something that they will have to work on. 

L. A. Reid is introduced by his partner, the songwriter Kenneth 
"Babyface" Edmonds. Babyface is a gas. He is way looser and 
funnier than Clive Davis, or anyone else here. "He was in this 
band called the Deele. I was in this band called Manchild," he 
deadpans. "There was a thing called 'breed' back then/' 



Babyface explains. "It was an attitude/' He pauses, letting the 
silence do its work. "L. A. said I wasn't breed enough. So I 
went away and worked on my breed. I got my hair together. I 
got my lips together/' His delivery is all about sideways 
variations on the deadpan, which he has mastered at the 
highest comedic levels. Everyone laughs at the idea of a 21- 
year-old L. A. Reid in purple spandex pants. 

Usher walks onstage, and launches into "U Got It Bad." He 
moves the mic when he sings, varying the distance and angle to 
better modulate his voice. L. A. Reid is floored. "It was so 
intimate," he says, after Usher is done. "I just loved it." 

After dessert, I notice Joni Mitchell standing nearby. I tell her 
that every woman I ever loved owned at least one copy of Blue. 
Now my 4-year-old daughter Susannah draws while listening to 
"Big Yellow Taxi." Impulsively, she hugs me, and gives me a 
kiss on the cheek before answering, "She had to start 
somewhere." She tells me that she and Neil Young both grew 
up in the same lonesome part of Canada, and were affected by 
the same childhood epidemic, at the same age, in the same year. 

Half the people in the room leave before the night is over, 
which means that it is possible to get a better table, close to the 
stage, as Clive continues on with his routine. Wiz Khalifa is 
here, as are Alicia Keys and her husband, Swizz Beatz. The 
Midnight Cowboy himself, Jon Voight, is here. The final duet 
features Jennifer Hudson and Gladys Knight. 



As the lights come up, I have no idea what to say. Then I realize 
I should thank Clive Davis for having me as a guest at his party. 
So I go up to the stage, where he is standing with Michael 
Ahern. "That was a wonderful party," I tell him, sincerely. 
"Thank you for having me/' He takes my hand and gives it a 
shake. 

"You're welcome/' he says, sadly. 



David Samuels is the literary editor at Tablet, a contributing editor 
at Harper's and a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and The 
New Yorker. He appeared on the Longform Podcast in October 
2012. 



BUILT WITH 

CREATAVIST